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Use or Lose: ESSER Spending Deadline Looms

A very important source of federal aid for K–12 programs will soon end. On September 30, 2024, the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund will expire, which puts states and school districts in a “use or lose” situation with billions of dollars in funding.


ESSER, as the fund has come to be known, was passed by Congress in March 2020 as part of the federal government’s first COVID-19 pandemic relief act. Two additional rounds of education relief funding, another in 2020 and one in 2021, created ESSER II and ESSER III.


These three rounds of funding totaled nearly $190 billion and brought an unprecedented amount of education aid to the nation’s K–12 schools. The funds played an instrumental role in addressing the learning needs of the nation’s children during the pandemic and in school reopenings. The funds continue to fund learning recovery initiatives in the post-pandemic years.


Many districts still have significant amounts of pandemic relief funds to spend. According to the most recent federal data released on November 30, 2023, states and school districts have spent approximately 70% of all ESSER funds, leaving $58 billion to be spent or obligated by the end of September 2024.


Drawdown rates vary significantly state to state. For example, as of November 30, 2023, the state with the highest ESSER drawdown rate was Washington (at 84%). The state with the lowest rate was Nebraska (at 50%). The drawdown rates of some of the largest enrollment states included California (71%), Texas (76.7%), Florida (73%), and New York (56.5%).


ESSER monies can be used for an array of activities, including new education programs, extended learning, instructional materials, digital learning, classroom connectivity, professional development, and more. Districts are required to spend at least 20% of the funding on programs that address learning loss. In addition, ESSER funds can also be used to support any activity currently authorized by existing federal education laws such as the Every Student Succeeds Act. These activities include Title III English language acquisition initiatives, Title I support for disadvantaged students, Title II literacy grants, and Title IV grants to support world language instruction.


ESSER funds that have not been spent or obligated by the September 2024 deadline must be returned to the federal government. While the U.S. Department of Education has said it will allow some extensions, there are no guarantees that a significant number of waivers will be granted.


While billions of dollars remain unspent, the rate of spending is accelerating and many state education agencies and school district officials say they are confident that ESSER funds will be spent or encumbered for specific projects by September 30. Doubts persist, however, particularly with those states that have been slow to spend.


Stay connected to the Vista Higher Learning Blog for updates. We will continue to provide the Vista language learning community with important information about ESSER and other federal and state funding topics.


Download Vista’s one-page flyer about the ESSER deadline.


By Jay A. Diskey


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